PROMONTORY SUMMIT -- Let's take a ride to a windswept plain in northwestern Utah where, on this day, one iron horse will meet another.
As historic locomotive No. 119 chugs its way down the tracks at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, it crosses paths with an iron horse of a new age -- a Harley-Davidson with TV star Stan Ellsworth of "American Ride" astride.
It's an eye-catching image captured during a day of filming on the BYUtv series at the famous location of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
"It's a big part of American history," says show host Ellsworth, off his bike now and chatting in the visitor center parking lot. Back in May of 1869, he says, "This is where our nation was tied together with bands of iron, and East met West."
Ellsworth, who lives in Draper, travels the United States on his shiny Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe, taking "American Ride" viewers with him to meet the people and places that formed our nation's history.
"Let's take a ride" is the biker's signature introduction to episodes that introduce us to everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Harriet Beecher Stowe to railroad icon Leland Stanford.
Stanford's one of the folks in the limelight at the Golden Spike National Historic Site as Ellsworth begins filming for the fourth season of "American Ride," which will focus on "The American West."
With cameras rolling, Ellsworth stands alongside railroad tracks and sagebrush, shooting take after take on the story of "The Big Four," a group of businessmen, including Stanford, who financed and created the Central Pacific Railroad.
"These men are going to become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams," the motorcylist-turned-history professor says, speaking without a script and looking straight into the camera, "and their names are going to be written down in history forever."
Then he turns, and walks down the tracks -- a bit of dramatic effect, see? -- with his "American Ride" logo now strikingly visible across the back of his denim vest.
Metaphor on wheels
That vest, the navy blue skull rag and the shoulder-length blond hair put this TV "teacher" in a class all of his own. Yet the burly native Utahn really did teach history for several years, at Salt Lake City's Highland High School, and he's also been seeing the world from a motorcycle since he was a teenager.
"So I married the two of them together and 'American Ride' was born," says Ellsworth, who began acting about 12 years ago and counts "Church Ball" (he played Jeremiah Jones) and "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" (he was Mr. Riley) among his credits.
Why ride a Harley to see the country's historic sites?
"It's a metaphor for the freedom we enjoy as Americans," the deep-and-gravelly voiced Ellsworth says during a break in filming. And just as folks tend to romanticize the era of the Old West, the TV host says, they do the same with motorcycles out on the open road.
And, he adds, "There's something about the outlaw biker image that we see that's kind of cool."
After visiting the Golden Spike site, the "American Ride" crew was off on a weeks-long journey to the Little Bighorn and other sites in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Texas, Arizona and California.
The shots filmed at Promontory are part of a new season that will air in April; the segments may end up in a number of episodes rather than a single program, says Scott Swofford of BYUtv in Provo.
A driving personality
"American Ride" debuted in the fall of 2011 with a look at the Revolutionary War. The current season, which is underway at 7:30 p.m. Mondays on BYUtv, is about the Civil War.
"(The filming at Promontory) will be the first time we're going to highlight our own turf here," says Swofford, director of content for BYUtv.
On TV, Ellsworth is known to quip, "This ain't your high school history class." It's that unique approach to history from "this giant Viking of a guy," who is educated and articulate, that has made the program click, Swofford says.
"I realize it's an unusual choice for BYUtv . . . but the unusualness of Stan is what is really paying off for us," he says.
"American Ride" director Scott Murphy adds that "Stan (himself) is a show ... he's the personality that drives it."
During the Top of Utah filming, dozens of tourists milled about the site to see the locomotives, including Randy Winn of North Ogden, who says he recognized the "American Ride" star right away.
"I never thought we'd run into him out here, but it doesn't surprise me because this is the kind of place he likes to get to," said Winn, who stopped by with his wife, Kathy, and their five grandchildren.
The motorcycle is sort of a "gimmick," but Winn says he enjoys the television program and the places it highlights.
As he watches Ellsworth deliver his lines on this outdoor "set," Winn also observes, "I don't see where he's reading it ... he knows his stuff by the time he comes here, doesn't he?"
In tune with past
On the road, Ellsworth says he is recognized by folks from age 14 to 80 who often tell him that they didn't know about the facts or events he talks about in his programs.
"Which makes me think: OK, none of us listened in history class," he says with a laugh.
Although history often has a reputation for being "boring," Ellsworth says during his years in the classroom he came to realize "You're not teaching a subject -- you're teaching individuals." Once a teacher makes a connection with a student, the subject comes alive.
His own love for history came from childhood visits to the Manassas Battlefield in Virginia, where he grew up.
"Where we lived, I could bike over to the battlefield," he says. And once he got there, he loved looking at the huge statue on the hill of Civil War general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and thinking, "One day, I'm going to be like that man."
The biker's affinity for times gone by shines through in his work on "American Ride." In an episode about the creation of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, he walks across the floor of Philadelphia's Independence Hall and talks about feeling the presence of the Founding Fathers there.
"The ghosts are so thick," Ellsworth says in the episode, "you have to brush them away from your face."
Not 'Joe Everyman'
"American Ride" came into being because Ellsworth realized that "in the entertainment business, you've got to be able to make work for yourself."
"I'm 6-foot 2 and, kindly put, I'm 300 pounds," the former NFL player and actor says, so in terms of snagging roles, "I know that I am not Joe Everyman."
Although his TV show portrays a lifestyle some might envy, hitting the road on a motorcycle and doing whatever you like, Ellsworth says the reality is much different.
"Before we ever hit the road, we pretty much beat ourselves up mentally so we're prepared to talk about what we'll talk about when we get out on the road," says the writer and co-producer of the series.
The biker hopes "American Ride" helps viewers see that the United States was founded by divine providence: "It has a purpose, it has a destiny."
And he also wants folks to understand that the issues of the past were every bit as troubling to citizens then as our own problems are to us today.
"We've done it before" when it comes to facing hard times, Ellsworth says.
But: "America will endure, the people will endure."
"American Ride" may be seen on channel 21 or 647 (HD) on Comcast, channel 374 on DirecTV and channel 9403 on Dish. It's also available online at http://byutv.org/shows.